Winston Churchill Believed We Weren’t Alone in the Universe, Newly Found Essay Reveals
Churchill displays a surprising amount of knowledge on a question that we are still wrestling with.
Today, Winston Churchill is seen as a cigar chomping, bulldog-faced leader from generations past, adorning offices and college dorms, where he displays a slightly jovial or else dead calm expression, and often, under his visage, stands a quote which inspires and heartens toward perseverance. Churchill was the rallying voice of the British people during some of the darkest days of World War II.
He was also among the first to see Germany as a growing threat and helped modernize and prepare Britain for the oncoming fight. His speeches during the war helped soothe and strengthen the resolve of the British people. He also coined the phrase “iron curtain” in a speech a year after the war, regarding the Soviet Union and how it was beginning to control an enormous swath of Eastern Europe.
As one of history’s foremost political and military leaders, Churchill is today looked upon with respect and admiration. What he is not well known for are his ruminations regarding science. According to a newly unearthed essay, the statesman contemplated our presence in the universe, and whether or not we are the only form of intelligent life.
Churchill was in fact a prolific writer. He’d been a military reporter and penned several books. But what’s less well documented is that Churchill also wrote on topics as diverse as nuclear fission, cells, and evolution, with articles published throughout the 1920s and 30s. Some scholars believe that this newly discovered piece may have been inspired by the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of The Worlds by Orson Welles, which resulted in a “Mars fever.”
Churchill kept close ties with scientists during and after the war, and was the first prime minister to bring on a science adviser. He spurred an interest in science in the country, supported the erecting of labs and telescopes, and even founded Churchill College, an institution much like MIT which has since turned out 32 Nobel Prize winners. During the war, he promoted the use of radar and supported the country’s nuclear program.
Churchill considered the Goldilocks Zone, and other astronomical principles in his argument.
Still, it was a great shock when this newly discovered document entitled, “Are We Alone in the Universe?” was unearthed. The 11-page article was first written in 1939 and had been edited lightly for publication in the 1950s. Somehow, it had been forgotten. Then in the 1980s, a copy was given to the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri. There it remained until the museum’s newest director, Timothy Riley, came across it in 2016.
After finding out it hadn’t been published, he passed it on to the journal Nature. Soon, two other copies were found in UK archives. The journal didn’t publish the article in its entirety.
Astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio, who received the piece from Riley, penned the version in Nature. He told the BBC that copyright issues, for the time being, made its full publication impossible. But the museum is working to see that it will eventually be released. Livio gave insights into the famous leader’s thinking, peppering his piece with quotes from the original text. Using the “Copernican Principle,” Churchill argues that the vastness of the universe and the multiplicity of planets leads us to believe that we are not alone.
“The sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others” Churchill writes. From there, he presumes that there are probably other forms of “comparatively highly-organised life.” Next, he concentrates on life’s need for water. Though other liquids may support it, “nothing in our present knowledge entitles us to make such an assumption.”
Water on Mars. Unfortunately, nothing lingers there now. But life may have inhabited the red planet in the past.
We are just beginning to learn that water is abundant in the universe, and can even be found on asteroids and on the moon. Next, Churchill concentrates on areas in solar systems which are in what we’d call today the “Goldilocks” zone, where a planet is far enough from a star as not to be too hot, but close enough so as not to be too cold. Having the right atmosphere and gravity to trap gases are important too, which Churchill considered.
He then states that Mars and Venus are our only neighbors who could harbor life. Venus’s atmosphere is poisonous. But some studies suggest that it may have, at one time, been habitable. Today, astrobiologists consider Saturn’s moon Titan or Jupiter’s Europa as possible life-containing bodies.
Though Churchill says that our sun may be unique, he also states, “I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets.” Churchill’s words were extremely forward thinking, as the discovery of exoplanets only began two decades ago. He also foresaw the space program. "One day, possibly even in the not very distant future, it may be possible to travel to the Moon, or even to Venus and Mars.” But whether we could cross the great distances to see if nearby exoplanets host life, Churchill was in doubt.
The then-prime-minister ends his essay by writing, “with hundreds of thousands of nebulae, each containing thousands of millions of suns, the odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible.”
Then he says, “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”
To learn more about this newly unearthed essay, click here:
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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